LUSAIL, Qatar (AP) — Akram Afif dropped to his knees. Pretty soon he was being thrown into the air by his joyous teammates after the forward’s hat trick of penalties secured back-to-back Asian Cup titles for Qatar.
Afif, the outstanding player of the tournament and leading scorer with eight goals, was nerveless when converting his spot kicks in a 3-1 win against Jordan at Lusail Stadium on Saturday.
Just over a year ago it had been Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe who had lit up this spectacular venue in arguably the greatest World Cup final of all time.
On this occasion it was Afif taking center stage and becoming the first player to score a hat trick in the Asian Cup final.
He had been his country’s standout performer from the start of the tournament and did not disappoint when it fell to him to produce the decisive moments against Jordan as Qatar became the first back-to-back winner since Japan in 2000 and 2004.
In front of more than 86,000 fans and with the pressure on, Afif never looked likely to miss from the spot and he sparked wild celebrations with each goal.
″(I scored) the penalties because of the confidence my teammates had in me. It is not about technique, it is about the feeling that people are behind me - my team,” Afif said.
He won and converted his first penalty in the 22nd minute. And after Yazan Al Naimat leveled the game in the 67th he struck again from the spot in the 73rd and sealed the win in the fifth minute of stoppage time.
Afif had spoken earlier in the tournament of his wish to return to European soccer after spells in Spain and Belgium at the start of his career. His performances, which also earned him the award for the Asian Cup’s most valuable player, will likely have caught the attention of clubs far and wide.
While this was a personal triumph for him, it was redemption for Qatar, which had endured a miserable World Cup on home soil in 2022 when exiting the tournament after three straight defeats in the group stage.
Even as host and defending champion, Qatar had been an unexpected finalist, let alone winner. Captain Hassan Al-Haydos noted on the eve of the final how critics had expected little of the team ahead of the tournament.
How satisfying for him, then, to be draped in the same type of black Qatari ceremonial robe that Messi had worn to lift the World Cup.
After the pain of that tournament, here was a moment of national celebration as the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani handed Al-Haydos the trophy and shortly after there was an eruption of tickertape and fireworks.
Earlier, Qatar’s Spanish coach, Márquez López slumped in his seat, seemingly exhausted, as he waited out 17 minutes of stoppage time.
The exertions of the past month appeared to have taken its toll. He had only been hired in December and Qatar had been beaten 2-1 by Jordan in a friendly in January.
“It was a very difficult game. The tension was high,” he said. “Maybe it was not the beautiful football everyone wished for, but everyone remembers the winner.”
Like Afif, López was also thrown into the air as part of the celebrations.
Despite a difficult buildup after taking over from predecessor Carlos Queiroz, López impressively guided Qatar to a successful defense of the title it won in 2019.
It became the eighth host nation to win the tournament.
Afif was undoubtedly the inspiration on the field.
“I'm so happy for Akram that he won all the (individual) awards. He deserved to win them,” López said.
Afif was outstanding from the opening game — when he scored two goals in a 3-0 win against Lebanon — to the final, when he completed his hat trick.
He had already forced two saves from Jordan goalkeeper Yazeed Abulaila when his run into the box panicked Abdallah Nasib into a clumsy challenge and referee Ma Ning blew for a penalty.
Afif stepped up and made no mistake from the spot - firing low into the corner and then ran towards a camera to produce a close-up magic card trick as part of his celebration.
Jordan - playing in its first Asian Cup final - was level after Al Naimat rifled home from inside the box, but went behind again when Ismaeel Mohammad was brought down by Mahmoud Al Mardi.
It took a video review before the referee pointed to the spot — but when he did, again Afif delivered by firing into the left hand corner.
Afif completed his hat trick after he was fouled by Abulaila in stoppage time.
Again it took a video review to award the spot kick. Again Afif converted.
“The timing of the penalties was crucial. We tried to come back into the game but the penalties came at a time that didn’t allow us,” Jordan coach Hussein Ammouta said. “We congratulate our players. We played a good tournament and gained respect and confidence from everyone.”
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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